Two weeks ago, I wrote an analysis of the presidential race for the Australian newspaper. The polls still showed Hillary Clinton far ahead, but the race had begun to tighten. The smart money should still be placed on Clinton, I argued, but that could soon change: 2016 now looked as if it had morphed into a battle between Hillary’s lies and Trump’s gaffes. It would now be decided by whichever of these turned out to be the more outrageous and by two extraneous factors: the debates and “events.”
Since then, Trump has caught up with Clinton nationally and in many battleground-state polls. The two candidates are currently level-pegging overall, and when it comes to gaffes, lies, the debates, and “events,” the advantage has gone marginally to Trump.
The debates have yet to happen. New information continues to trickle out that contradicts Clinton’s explanations of her e-mail scandal. The main “event” has been her apparent public collapse from pneumonia, a turn right out of P. G. Wodehouse. (“Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly placing lead into the boxing glove.”) Clinton has blundered into gaffe territory with her “basket of deplorables” remark, while Trump’s latest “gaffe”— his hemming and hawing on whether Obama was born in the U.S., and the subsequent, chaotic press conference in which he attempted to disavow the “birthers” and blame Clinton for creating them — is two-edged. It is embarrassing to him and guaranteed to earn another round of negative press, but it also rekindles discussion of a discredited conspiracy theory that will now serve as a distraction for her.
Trump may now even be the favorite.
How could he make that slim probability a near-certainty? By sticking to the campaign scripts that he writes with his (generally shrewd and conservative) advisors while avoiding gaffes and ad-libs. At this point that may well be enough. But he could make assurance doubly sure by adopting a slightly different political persona that nonetheless incorporated all the distinctive policies that made him popular in the first place.
I think I knew this before, but as it happens, Charlie Cooke beat me to it. In a recent column, he imagined how Trump might fare if he ran a campaign on the same issues (immigration, protectionism, rejection of political correctness, nationalism) but in the opposite spirit (that of a “compassionate conservative,” or, in UK terms, a One Nation Tory). How would he do if he were to exude smoothly benevolent platitudes to the voters as he gladhanded his way through a feel-good campaign? (“Mexicans? Splendid hard-working guys. Great family folk. Love ’em. And when we’ve got the economy booming again as a result of my policies, they’ll have their place in the sun. Until then, though, we have to give our own hard-working Americans the first crack at the new jobs. Look, the Mexicans are fine people. They’ll understand.”)
Cooke concludes, persuasively in my eyes, that Trump would then “walk through an open door.”
Trump is nonetheless the master of his own fate at this point. He lives by the gaffe and, if he dies, he will die by the gaffe.
Of course, it’s getting a little late for such a personality make-over. And Trump evidently chafes, at least in practice, at the notion of adopting a false front for the campaign. It would be easier for him if he had gradually worked on these campaign issues in advance and legitimately made them part of his own thinking about what would make America great again. But by and large, he blundered into the issues that have fuelled and sustained his campaign. He didn’t know the arguments for them, and though he’s perfectly able to mug them up, he sometimes forgets what they are and contradicts himself and his policy papers. He hires knowledgeable advisors but often ignores them. In a way it’s like watching a man who, midway through an attempt to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, suddenly consults a book with the title “How to Cross Niagara Falls in Six Easy Lessons” but finds it boring and throws it away.
Trump is nonetheless the master of his own fate at this point. He lives by the gaffe and, if he dies, he will die by the gaffe. Clinton is a kind of puzzled bystander at her own fate as she tries to recall what will be in the next batch of e-mails to hit the fan.
Charlie points out that his advice to Trump stemmed from disinterested tactical Machiavellianism, and that he wouldn’t like Trump-as-Harold-Macmillan or a Tory-fied GOP at all. As an un-reconstructed Thatcherite, I largely agree with him. But as someone who lived from 1942 until 1975 under, with, and in such a party, I can assure him that it’s not too bad. Muddled, decent, split-the-difference Tories were kind, decent, patriotic people who had no desire to remake society in accordance with some utopian plan. Their problem was ideological laziness: They went with the statist flow, complaining mildly but thinking it inevitable, until its costs in tax and regulation became unignorably heavy. At which point Mrs. Thatcher seized control of her dozy party and gave it what it had always said it wanted.
Something like that would doubtless happen here were the GOP to follow Charlie’s insights if Trump either loses or fails in office. Indeed, one wonders why it hasn’t happened already. If the electoral appeal of such a policy is as strong as he says, why haven’t ambitious Republican entrepreneurs taken up the themes of immigration control, rejection of political correctness, and nationalism and won elections by making those themes as blandly palatable as possible, and seriously addressing the plight of those hit by economic change even if we have to come up with more imaginative policies than a self-destructive protectionism? After all, persuasion is part of the politician’s job. Despite Trump’s gaffes and personal baggage, he has shown the strength of his platform’s appeal to the Republican half (or 40 percent) of America, from moderate suburbanites to blue-collar ex-Democrats. If we assume that GOP moderates are not too greatly hampered by addiction to political principles, why have they avoided these popular issues? It’s not as if they have either a great package of their own moderate policies or a growing affection for the classical liberal conservatism that Charlie and Jonah Goldberg espouse.
I don’t want to call this package Trumpism or Trumpery, but for the sake of a last line, I have to do so. Trumpery is too important to be left to Trump and the Trumpettes. Conservatives have to incorporate its main elements into (yet another) fusionist new conservatism that offers enough to all legitimate conservative factions to keep them inside the big tent. They have to devise and argue for credible responses to automation and the new economy that don’t reek of excessive long term optimism. And they should notice and exploit a linked set of issues with growing appeal such as the rise of global governance, the growing assault on the nation-state, the erosion of democracy, and the spread of political correctness from the student Left to courts, the media, the Internet, and the federal and state bureaucracies — and, most interesting of all, to the German government and the EU — that increasingly determine how we live and are governed. Conservatives have largely allowed the Left to monopolize the interpretation of such issues as a mindless “populism.” In their different ways Trump’s rise and Brexit have revealed their wider importance.
It can be done, and all suggestions to the contrary should be met with active resistance. Please don’t tell me that nationalism is incompatible with classical liberalism, let alone with conservatism. My patience is not inexhaustible, nor my blood pressure flat.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review and president of the Danube Institute.